Classic Royko: Down the alley of life

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It’s a dirty job, but Larry Weintraub had to do it. Here he is aboard a garbage truck with Tony Nogly (left) in the 43rd Ward. | 1987

Editor’s note. Just the other day we heard somebody on TV insist that he was doing pretty well in life, that it’s not like he was “a garbageman.” Sigh. Some things never change. Mike wrote this column in about 1966. It’s included in his first collection of columns, “Up Against It.”

It was an unkind thing that Ald. John Hoellen said a few days ago.

He was making a plea for overtime pay for policemen and firemen. This was a nice thing to do.


But he couldn’t leave it at that. He had to emphasize his point in an unsportsmanlike way. He said:

“…Neither the policeman nor the fireman receives time and one-half for overtime — even though the garbage truck driver does.”

As some readers may recall, this column has campaigned against the practice of using garbagemen as an arguing point for higher wages.

For years, teachers, policemen, firemen, social workers and others have gone before legislative bodies to ask for more money. And one of their favorite arguments has been:

“Do you realize that we earn less (or the same as, or hardly any more) than garbagemen — GARBAGEMEN!”

The implication is that nobody in the world, especially someone who wears a shirt and tie and clean socks to work, should be paid less or even the same as the garbageman. It is meant to shock the listener, to make him aware of the financial injustice.

And this, in effect, is what Hoellen was doing.

I don’t know what Hoellen thinks garbagemen do all day. Maybe somebody has told him that they toe-dance down the alleys, sniffing backyard roses and listening to transistor radios.

But for his information, they spend all day messing around with garbage — G-A-R-B-A-G-E.

Maybe the alderman doesn’t know what this is like. If so, I invite him to go to the nearest alley, to lift the lid from a can, and to shove his head down inside. Breathe deeply. Look around inside that can.

A real sloppy mess, hey, alderman?

That’s garbage, sir. It’s the stuff that’s left over after the party, or in the frying pan when you have gobbled up all the lean parts.

Now look down that alley. As far as you can see there are cans. That’s the way it is all over. Hundreds of miles of alleys. Thousands of cans. Tons of garbage. And they see it all.

Day after day, they empty the cans. They meet crawly things. They work in the heat and the cold. They lose their sense of smell. The job has no status. They never hear a kid say: “I want to grow up to be a garbageman.”

And what do we do? Do we ever thank them? Do little old ladies, frightened by social changes, ever write letters to the editor saying: “God bless our garbagemen. They deserve your support. Wake up, America!”

Do we rush out at Christmas and slip them a box of candy, a tie, a good book or even a fifth?

No. When they empty the cans we just fill them up again.

But the garbageman doesn’t complain. He just moves steadily down the alley of life, hauling away your leftover cheese-dip.

And the only time they hear themselves mentioned is when someone comes along and says:

“We earn less than garbagemen.”

Yet garbagemen don’t do that to other people.

I’ve never heard a garbageman say:

“We work hard but we get paid less than aldermen and other loafers.”

I have never heard a garbageman point out that the only time an alderman lifts something heavy and disposable is when he gets up and goes home.

Garbagemen could, but don’t, point out that you’ll never catch two of them dividing up the day’s collection.

Not once have I heard a garbageman say that if they all walked out the city would be rocked by rodents, disease and foul air. But if the aldermen walked out the city would be rocked by applause.

They don’t say things like that because they hang around in decent places, such as alleys, with decent people — other garbagemen.

Hoellen, a nice man most of the time, probably can’t be blamed for what he said.

As the mothers always say to the judge:

“He’s really a good boy — it’s just the bad company he keeps.”

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